The two faces of a street artist

Vandals or socially conscious, anonymous or claiming celebrity – the duality of the street artist community in Israel is always evolving.

Rami Meiri (photo credit: LEIGH CUEN)
Rami Meiri
(photo credit: LEIGH CUEN)
Israel’s street art scene is riddled with duality.
It is a world of unknown celebrities and illegal art that is celebrated by embassies, municipalities and museums. Over the past decade it has emerged as a street art powerhouse that even rivals the culture capital of New York City. The street art scenes of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa and Safed offer a window to a local culture that’s fused with international influences; a rising creative industry where some of its most prominent artists still struggle to survive. And the evolution of street art – from humble beginnings to a center of groundbreaking creativity – is an example of the unique complexities of life in Israel.
Street art arrived relatively late here. From Mexico City to Berlin, the past century witnessed a golden age of public art where new, creative disciplines gained unparalleled significance. Even in the 1970s, the few scattered pieces of graffiti in Israel were mostly anonymous political inscriptions, which lacked artistic aesthetics.
Early Israeli graffiti never developed into the sort of “style wars” that were waged in other urban art scenes.
Then in 1982, artist Rami Meiri, the “father” of Israeli street art, paved the way when he painted his first public mural near Tel Aviv’s Gordon Beach.
“When I started, I didn’t have any examples to look to,” says Meiri. “I felt a strong pressure from society to ‘find a more serious outlet.’ But when I saw the way people reacted to the mural, I knew I had to keep going.”
Today, Tel Aviv is one of the world’s most prominent hubs for street artists of every variety, including muralists, graffiti artists and visual poets.
Israeli street artists known by names such as Klone; Signor Gi; Know Hope; and the Haifa-based crew Broken Fingaz are among the many to gain international renown. Meiri’s favorite young Israeli street artist goes by the alias Dede Bandaid, or Dede. His signature on the walls, doors and electric boxes of Tel Aviv are a two-dimensional bandage. His most recent mural depicts Band-Aids in the shape of an N, a tribute to his girlfriend Nitzan Mintz, the great-great-granddaughter of Shimon Rokach, one of the founders of Neveh Tzedek and a legendary mayor of Tel Aviv. Mintz was recently celebrated by Globes newspaper as “the first Hebrew street poet.”
She met Dede through street art and they now share a studio.
“Being together has changed our work completely,” says Dede. “We criticize and challenge each other artistically.”
But living together as artists is never easy.
“I still try to protect my secrecy and my name,” Dede says. “Sometimes it’s hard to balance two identities, but it gives me freedom. It puts me in a zone of creation when I become this alter ego. Being Dede allows me to create without ego, rules, or chains.”
A GOOD portion of young street artists are immigrants from places with a history of graffiti art. For example, Foma, one of Tel Aviv’s most prominent street artists, came from Russia. Her work is known for scathing, feminist critiques of Israeli society. One of her recent series, including pieces currently on display at the South Tel Aviv Gallery, combines fraught, chaotic sketches of bodies layered with catcalls men have shouted at her on the street. Similarly, when Elliott Leigh Tucker moved from London to Jerusalem, he started developing the same sort of collective street art projects he knew from the UK. Like Mintz, Tucker also interweaves his street art with community engagement.
“I am more a producer of art projects than a solo artist,” he says. “Using graffiti is a way to give underprivileged communities a voice.
“A lot of art institutions revolve around power, who has the power to be heard,” he says.
“With street art, there is no gatekeeper.”
Tucker has worked on projects in a variety of locations, such as Safed, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. According to Tucker, the political context and security situation in Jerusalem creates challenges for local street artists. Yet he believes the scene will only continue to grow.
“Platforms like Facebook and Instagram are great hubs for street artists to network,” Tucker says. “Many Israeli street artists have gone international, and there’s more to come.”
Fellow Anglo-immigrant known by the alias Eggplant Kid, or EPK, sees tagging as a way to celebrate his dual cultural identities. EPK is the man behind the goofy eggplants painted across walls all over Israel. He considers himself more of a tagger than an artist, yet he has become a local street art icon.
“Eggplants are very Israeli, and adding the word ‘Kid’ on the end of something feels American. I hope the eggplants make people smile,” says EPK. “During the day I’m a hardworking professional.
This night-alias is a fun outlet for me. I like that EPK’s reputation has nothing to do with me.”
Like EPK, many street artists develop their own signature style or logo that identifies their work. For example, Adi Sened has been making street art for 14 years. He is best known for “mini-boxes,” simple yet vibrant characters arranged in humorous ways that allude to well-known art history and pop culture icons. He was featured as part of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art’s groundbreaking street art exhibition in 2011 and is currently the “artist-ofthe- month” at Tiny Tiny Gallery in Florentin. Sened intentionally puts his small figures in out-of-the-way spaces, drawing viewers in to examine sharp details, as well as the dialogue between different artworks and messages on the street. Dynamic responses allow each artwork on the street to gain its own unique, layered significance.
Unfortunately, Sened hasn’t focused on new work lately because he is looking for an apartment.
“They’re rebuilding the place where I’ve lived for 10 years. Now I have to leave,” Sened said. “It’s hard to find a similar space in Tel Aviv with room for my work.”
OVER THE past four years, street art tour companies have sprouted up across urban centers and it has become common for municipalities and museums to host street tours and graffiti art exhibitions.
Galleries dedicated to street artists have also popped up, such as the South Tel Aviv Gallery that recently hosted French artist Amose’s debut.
Yet street art is still officially illegal in Israel, and according to artist Maya Gelfman, many of Israel’s famous street artists are struggling to survive.
“Tel Aviv promotes itself as a place for artists while the rising rent prices push young creatives over the edge,” she says.
“The city is in danger of becoming a place saturated with merchandise of an art scene without any blood.”
Dede agrees that the commercialization of Israeli street art has problematic effects.
“The museum, businesses and municipality earn money on our backs,” he says. “Many tour guides don’t know what they are talking about. They don’t even talk to us or understand the intention behind our works.”
However, the Internet provides a platform for street artists to interact directly with audiences.
“We are accessible to the public through social media,” says Dede.
“My Facebook is like another wall outside,” Mintz adds. “Yet it is also a virtual graveyard for my pieces, which may someday get wiped out.”
Both Mintz and Gelfman often create art with domestic materials. Mintz collects and remakes household objects abandoned in the street. Gelfman is best known for her work with wool and string, which she uses to make textured, fluent lines that resemble a pencil drawing or a brush stroke.
“I wanted lines outside that can respond and relate to their surroundings, the 3D reality of the streets,” Gelfman says.
Even though she is among the few who signs her real name, Mintz still feels that street art gives her a dual identity.
“I write alone in my room, then I disconnect myself from those words, put them outside, let them go. It’s not me anymore,” she says. “The girl who wrote those words and the one who paints them outside are not the same person.”
Some artists, such as Mintz, sign their real names as an artistic choice. Mintz explains that she takes responsibility for her work; if someone doesn’t appreciate her graffiti on his building she will remove it. She doesn’t see her work as vandalism. This is a trait she shares with diverse street artists, who believe that just because their art is illegal, it doesn’t make their work harmful or wrong.
Most Israeli street artists are motivated by a social consciousness, hoping to engage and inspire the public by beautifying neglected spaces. Mintz actively engages with the communities where she works. She explains that an unlikely friendship with a prostitute in south Tel Aviv influenced her art in that neighborhood.
“I paint pink backgrounds for many of my poems in honor of her,” Mintz says. “Then one of the local pimps wiped out my poem about violence against women.”
Mintz recently gave a local street art tour and lecture about prostitution and women’s issues on International Women’s Day 2014.
MAKERS OF street art still face discrimination in professional institutions and, consequently, beautiful works are routinely painted over. Tal Lanir, who curated Tel Aviv Museum’s first exhibition dedicated to street artists, says she received complaints that the works were “acts of vandalism.”
However, despite these challenges, street art has become a part of the national consciousness. Over the past five years, cities from Bat Yam to Haifa have hosted popular exhibitions featuring diverse street artists. And Tel Aviv is still the reigning queen of the Mediterranean’s street art scene.
“Two-and-a-half years ago, I realized I live in a graffiti paradise,” says Guy Sharett of StreetWise Hebrew Tours. He runs a popular graffiti tour in Florentin that focuses on the historical context, as well as the artists and locals behind Israel’s street culture. Sharett offers tours of all kinds for both tourists and locals. He recently hosted a tour for deaf Israelis along with a sign-language translator.
Since moving to Florentin in 2006, Sharett has developed friendships with the street artists working in south Tel Aviv. Yet he acknowledges that even he is a part of gentrification.
“Florentin tours are the easiest to sell because everyone wants to see the bohemian art scene here. Wake up and smell the Super-Pharm,” Sharett says, gesturing towards a new building with unmarked walls and a new Super-Pharm sign. “The city is changing.”
Several parking lots and dilapidated buildings around Florentin that were once playgrounds for local street artists have been demolished over the past two years. Instead, the former parking lots will soon host modern towers filled with luxury apartments.
When art legend Meiri started painting in public 32 years ago, he deliberately made his projects legal and official.
He believes street art is changing Israel’s next generation of artists, similar to the way digital media is influencing newspapers and other communicative media.
“With street art, you can leave a comment, you can share pictures with your friends, you can create with more freedom,” Meiri says. “Like with blogging, street art today reveals a thirst for active storytelling. Today we want to create and relate, not consume. We are less passive with our pleasures.”
Whether creators view themselves as taggers or muralists, whether they use nicknames or public personae, most street artists adhere to common aesthetics and creative philosophies. Their pieces are site-specific, deliberately designed to create dialogue between viewers and the surrounding environment.
Many view street art as an anti-capitalist form of interactive self-publishing.
“There’s a magical power in street art,” says Gelfman, “when the artist takes the power back into her own hands.”
She sees striking similarities between the story of Purim and the philosophy of street art.
“At the core of Esther’s story you see a single person can influence the environment around her.”
It’s also common for street-art creators to practice multidisciplinary art.
Even clandestine artists such as Dede exhibit in galleries and sell their works in more traditional formats.
“Once it’s inside it is no longer street art,” Dede clarifies. “But as an artist I am not defined or limited by genres.”
Most street artists relish the unofficial and unregulated display of their work.
Meiri is a rare exception. He makes great efforts to cooperate with institutions; such as Taglit-Birthright, local municipalities and businesses. He prefers to organize commissioned, professional works and always gets permission.
“I want street art to become a part of the official culture,” said Meiri. “I hope someday Israel will have cities like San Francisco, with diverse public spaces dedicated to art.”